September 2016

Arts & Letters

Double dissolution

By Justin Clemens
Ben Lerner’s ‘The Hatred of Poetry’ brings together questions of art and politics

“The fatal problem with poetry: poems,” Ben Lerner writes in this brief, engaging and occasionally irritating book (Text Publishing; $19.99). His elegant ratiocinations have been provoked by the gap between the aerial ambitions of Poetry (capitalised, singular) and the mundane apparition of poems themselves (lower-case, multiple). Caught between a promise that can’t be kept and an act that can’t be accomplished, neither aspiring poets nor their putative audiences can handle the stress of this constitutional divide. Even a successful poem is a failure. In their struggle, poets and people quickly debouch to one of the most fundamental of human passions – hatred. The love of poetry turns out to be inseparable from the hatred of poetry. Why does this matter? Because it tells us something essential about politics too.

Lerner’s own love of paradox should already be apparent from this précis. In fact, he can’t help himself. No sooner has he asserted a proposition than he’s busy complicating or contradicting it. For Lerner, one loves Poetry in the abstract, but is horrified by any particular poem, or, rather, fascinated by each poem’s incapacity to live up to the dream that birthed it. Lerner’s is a celebration of lyrical failure, an extended riff on WB Yeats’ great line that “The painter’s brush consumes his dreams.” As he wrote in his debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), and repeats here, “the more abysmal the experience of the actual, the greater the implied heights of the virtual”. Indeed, really terrible poems are perhaps more capable of alerting us to this essential gap than good poems: Lerner’s paradigm is William Topaz McGonagall’s sublimely dreadful ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’.

Lerner’s lightness of touch is enviable: beyond his penchant for the amusing and suavely delivered paradox, he is a fine and funny reader. His interpretations are illuminating and educative, moving from the lemon-squeezing intensity of detailed metrical analysis up to broader implications for the politics of language. His fundamental question is strong: how is it, despite the almost total public nugatoriness of poetry today, there remains so much ambivalent attention paid to it?

The fact that the book has clearly struck a chord is testament to the import of the question. Locally and overseas, long and serious responses to Lerner’s book continue to sprout. Yet, as the Melbourne writer and academic Ali Alizadeh pointed out to me, this efflorescence of attention is by no means due to the fact that Lerner is an acclaimed poet – rather it’s because he is a successful novelist. Text, Lerner’s Australian publisher, has until now studiously avoided any hint of poetry in its extensive literary lists, except as parody. Its publication of this book therefore confirms the book’s thesis, despite the impressive, almost Oulipian, cover design: WH Chong has decomposed the title to a vertical double-cross of black and red lettering, THE/HAT/RED/OF/POE/TRY.

As soon as I heard the title, I knew Marianne Moore’s poem ‘Poetry’ was going to have to come up. And so it does immediately, in its famously truncated 1967 version, as if Lerner knew, having tripped the poetry reviewer’s buzzer, he’d better pay up as a sign of good faith: “I, too, dislike it. / Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine.” (With a tell-tale irony, it seems that the US and Australian editions of this book set the three-line version in four lines, again confirming the general disregard for poems themselves.) The occasion for this opening sally is Lerner having to memorise a poem for his ninth-grade English teacher, Mrs X. It turns out, however, that the poem’s brevity and apparent simplicity are deceptive. You get the picture: the older Ben, now a successful failed poet, confesses that young Ben, who becomes a poet by trying to evade poetry by pretending to like it, does so by choosing an emblematic poem by a poet’s poet about not liking poetry, thereby getting himself into hot educational water. If little Lerner’s failure to memorise the poem is indeed a failure, he fudges the blame, at least in its recollection: was it his own spontaneous resistance to poetry that hindered its uptake, or was it the poem’s own resistance to any easy apprehension? Let’s not forget either that Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, was the mother of the ancient muses. Note, too, that Moore’s poem cannily presents itself as emblematic of the very gap between Poetry and poems that continues to animate Lerner today.

Lerner proceeds to link this gap to the struggles between difference and identity, particular and universal, at the level of politics. Just like poetry, politics suffers from a constitutional internal disjunction, which could be phrased as follows: no politics without division, no politics without a yearning for unity, no justice without commonality, no justice without difference. Lerner’s own self-assigned (and perhaps grandiose) task is not only to expose and diagnose this paradoxical situation but also to reconnect the two kinds of division, poetical and political, without subordinating one to the other.

Hence the importance to Lerner of the figures of Walt Whitman, the poet of American “universalism” par excellence, and Claudia Rankine, a pre-eminent contemporary poet. For Lerner, the former offers a radical democratisation of pronouns and perceptions, pursuing an “impossible desire to both recognize and suspend difference within his poems, to be no one in particular so he could stand for everyone”. The latter, by contrast, “confronts – as an African-American woman – the impossibility (and impossible complexity) of attempting to reconcile herself with a racist society in which to be black is either to be invisible (excluded from the universal) or all too visible (as the victim of racist surveillance and aggression)”. Once again, Lerner’s dialectical acumen is in evidence: poetry and politics are divided against themselves, and it would be a disaster if they were not, yet we must still work against the iniquity of these divisions if we are not to succumb to injustice.

In a review for the New Republic, Ken Chen complains that “Lerner constantly invokes politics, only to suppress actual political content”. Chen, citing the great African-American poet Amiri Baraka, implies that Lerner’s close formal interpretations tend to whitewash the real issues (in this case, racial). Perhaps that’s true. But the intensity of US race politics can’t be entirely separated from lyrical and narrative concerns. Lerner’s bravura interpretations, mixing formalism and politics, refuse such a separation.

Certainly, there are many peculiarly North American obsessions on display here. It’s hard not to get the chemical tang of an exclusive US liberal arts college from Lerner’s urbane erudition, the almost liturgical citations of hallowed authorities. At once a tricky literary pony who can tack on a pinhead and a self-conscious schlemiel who is performing a role that he hopes we’ll see through but will nonetheless be enchanted by, appreciating his false tact and his genuflections to our own resentments, Lerner has no fear of recycling themes, images, phrases. Those already au fait with his novels will recognise not only the first-person voice but also thoughts such as the following, from Leaving the Atocha Station: “Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf.” This recycling is surely part of what makes Lerner our contemporary, where the critic’s voice is also that of a poet, which is also that of a fictional prose narrator, which is also that of Lerner himself.

For a different take (certainly, a more restrictedly academic one) on the issues at stake in US public poetry, one could refer to Piotr Gwiazda’s US Poetry in the Age of Empire, which also examines “the predicament faced by every American poet gifted with civic ambition: How to write poems for people who don’t read poems”. Or, for a more speculative European intervention, you could pick up Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s The Uprising: On poetry and finance, which makes the claim that poetry resists the reduction of language to information, defending human potential against the forces that seek to pervert it. The shared point is that poetry, even if unnoticed and irrelevant, persists at the heart of politics.

It’s noteworthy that the “hatred” of Lerner’s title isn’t ever satisfactorily justified or explained. Lerner begins by just popping the word in there, between Moore’s own “dislike” and “contempt”. Similarly, it’s not that Plato simply hates poetry, but that he fears and respects it. Disdain, denunciation and defence are not synonyms for, nor necessarily even components of, hate. Many reviewers have noted that the book is not really a diatribe or manifesto, but rather has the structure of a romance. That the word “hate” first occurs in Lerner’s 2014 novel 10:04 to refer to the protagonist’s feelings towards the boyfriends of his female friend Alex lends credence to this supposition. Hatred emerges as the correlate of an inexpressible, unworkable love.

If the book is unclear about its own titular affect, why “hatred” at all? Aside from the inestimable publicity value of the word, there’s undoubtedly a bit of self-hatred at work. Terry Eagleton once remarked that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy was the product of a kind of embarrassment, as if he’d suddenly woken up and found himself a world-class virtuoso of a preposterous instrument nobody wanted to listen to. One could certainly read Lerner’s works generally as explorations of such a theme. But there’s more going on. In ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’, the English essayist William Hazlitt writes, “Have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough.” Hate is simultaneously a personal and a political motif. This little book is in the end a reasonably well camouflaged shriek of love-hate, directed towards the anti-poetic disdain of the wider world. Yet it thereby obliquely seeks, precisely by affirming the non-negotiability of hatred in both poetry and politics, to alert us as to how our enmities are already more complex than we believe them to be, that our loathing also bespeaks a dismayed and thwarted attraction.

A poet tries to do things to the words with which people try to do things to their worlds. This is a paradox – not least because words and worlds keep on getting themselves mixed up with one another, to the point of irremediable confusion. Still, beyond or beneath the paradoxes, the book proposes something very clear, pressing and precise for our era of climate change, rapacious financial globalisation and killer drones: why does poetry, worthless as it is, keep on troubling people? Because, even in our world’s apocalyptic old age, poetry returns us to the primordial conditions of human sociability, the revivifying powers of everyday language itself.

Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens writes about contemporary Australian art and poetry. He teaches at the University of Melbourne.

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